A Revolution At Sea?


The developments in American Colonial maritime link directly to and lead to the American War For Independence (1775-1783). In fact, some of the war’s causes were part of the maritime scene. Trade. Taxes. Import/Export Regulations. And – don’t forget – The Boston Tea Party!

The war seemed ludicrous to the world powers during the 18th Century. Did a bunch of colonial farmers and seamen really think they were going to win against one of the strongest nations in Europe? The British Army and Navy had been honing the art of war on battlefields and the waves for centuries, but – perhaps – that was the American’s advantage.

This blog post focuses on some aspects of the Revolutionary War at sea. It looks into some of the problems and advantages for both sides during the conflict. It explores how the war prepared the new nation to want/need its own navy – a navy that would protect the country’s trade interests and allow for continued success in maritime ventures. Continue reading

I’ll Spy On You – Civilians & War, Part 2

One of my favorite history books about the American War for Independence is George Washington: Spymaster by Thomas B. Allan. The spy network used on both sides during this conflict was incredible, especially given the limited “technology” they possessed.

Today, we’ll use the American War for Independence setting and look at the role civilians played as spies. (If you missed my post on Tuesday, it’s an in-depth look at the spying going on in Gettysburg before that battle – check it out here.)

If this civilian woman is making uniforms, growing food, and sheltering spies, is she really a non-combatant? You decide.

If this civilian woman is making uniforms, growing food, and sheltering spies, is she really a non-combatant? You decide.

Really Non-Combatant?

Let’s be clear on something. A civilian is technically any person not enlisted in the military or with a para-military organization (like a police force.) But are civilians really non-combatants? That’s a big question, and one which I think each person needs to decide for themselves.

Here’s an example of how the situation becomes complicated. American Civil War: Southern farmer is not in the Confederate army, but he’s growing food to feed that army. He’s a civilian, but is he really a non-combatant? Can he really plead innocence when the enemy comes to burn his fields.

Another scenario: a civilian harbors guerilla fighters (pick just about any war you want). Are they really non-combatants?

You decide. But keep in mind – very rarely are civilians completely innocent bystanders. (A real moral dilemma for military commanders.)

So now that I’ve opened that topic for you to consider, let’s talk about some civilians (people not in uniform) who were playing very active roles in wars: spies.

1. Washington’s Spies (American War for Independence)

One of America’s first known spying attempts went disastrously wrong. Nathan Hale, a 21 year old officer in the Continental Army, disguised himself as a civilian and trudged off to spy on the British. (Listen, if you’re ever a spy don’t hide your notes in your shoes; that’s always where they check first!) Well, poor Nathan was captured, made to take off his shoes, his notes were found, and he was hanged.

After that tragic occurrence, George Washington set up an official spy ring – and he was actually a member (Agent 711). Washington’s spy ring was mostly civilians, a couple double agents, and a few other civilians who were brave enough to send messages about what they knew.

Benjamin Tallmadge (portrait is from c. 1800)

Benjamin Tallmadge (portrait is from c. 1800)

Benjamin Tallmadge was the leader of the spy ring. He was in charge of the unofficial military intelligence department, keeping track of secret agents, giving assignments, and developing the secret code.

2. Tallmadge’s Secret Code

Tallmadge’s code was a combination of numbers which represented certain words – names, locations, actions, or things. There were also ways to write words not assigned numbers by laboriously rewriting the words in code.

The British were very mystified by the “random” and “nonsensical” numbers and letters. They never successfully deciphered the code.

Want to see what the code looked like? Here’s some examples (with translations).

232 mmk would translate to “Gazette665”

711 111 gqlpyemmcu 683 619 translates to “George Washington (711) confident (111) Cornwallis (gqlpyemmcu) will (683) surrender (619)”

3. The Culper Spy Ring

This spy ring was based near in the New York / New Jersey area and passed information from the British army headquarters in New York to George Washington. Not many of the members knew each other – some never even saw their contacts. (Security reasons, of course.)

Artist's idea of a member of the Culper Spy Ring

Artist’s idea of a member of the Culper Spy Ring

The spies in the city hung around taverns, coffee shops, and the loyal British newspaper offices, picking up fragments of news which they encoded and sent on the journey to Tallmadge and Washington. The messages traveled in various ways – left buried in certain locations for “pick-up”, slipped to the next person, carried in hats, bags, wagons, and who knows what else. At one location, a lady would signal if it was safe to transport messages by hanging a certain number of white handkerchiefs on her clothes line!

One of the disappoint things for historians is that we often don’t know much about the spies themselves or their missions. It was secret, and it has remained a secret.

4. The Spying Quaker

Again, somewhat shrouded in appropriate mystery, Lydia Darragh was a secret agent in Philadelphia (not connected to the Culper Spy Ring as far as we know). Lydia was a Quaker, and she believed all war was wrong. But she wasn’t a very good non-combatant!

British officers liked to use her comfortable parlor for planning meetings. And Lydia eavesdropped! She scribbled down her news, folded the papers and recovered some buttons for her son’s jacket, sealing the messages inside the buttons. Her son then went to visit Washington’s camp…and somehow lost the buttons.

Legend has it that Lydia Darragh discovered an important British secret regarding a military movement. She left the city (with British permission and pass), met an American officer at a tavern, handed him her sewing kit, and left. In the sewing kit was the information about the British army that Washington had been seeking.

These are just a few examples from one war. Think of how many civilians have impacted the outcome of battles and conflicts with their spying missions. I wonder how many spies and mission are so secret we will never know about them… Probably more than we could ever imagine…yikes!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Got a spy story from a different war? I’d love to hear about it!


1775-1783: Revolution or…?

Well, it’s a new month: September! And time for a new theme; I need you to VOTE – see the comments section. We’re leaving behind WWI (now found in the August 2014 Archives) and traveling farther back in time to a conflict fought between the years 1775-1783. There is the question: what shall we call it?

Most of you probably call it “The American Revolution.”  That’s fine and is an acceptable term according to society and the dictionary. However, I prefer to call it “The American War for Independence.”


Stay with me…we’re going to get a little technical here in just a second.  First, though, you can call the conflict anything you like (within reason of course), but you may find that you prefer one term over another. So “Revolutionary War” or “American War for Independence” – that is a question. (Sorry, I’ve been watching too much Shakespeare.)

“It would be beneficial to establish a definition of the term revolution and [political] reformation…  A revolution is motivated by a desire for autonomous freedom from God’s authority as expressed in biblical revelation. It results in a violent overthrow of a government based on a radical humanistic reordering of the whole social order apart from God’s law…  [Consider the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, or Communist Revolutions and you’ll start to get the idea.]

“A political reformation or war for independence is motivated by a biblical view of liberty to serve God according to His Word. This results in a rejection of all forms of political tyranny, wherein man exalts himself above the law of God… [The so called “Glorious Revolution” and American 1775-183 conflict are examples of political reformation].

“While revolution seeks for freedom it brings a worse form of tyranny. A political reformation based upon biblical truth is the only foundation of true freedom. Thus the French Revolution brought destruction and chaos, while the Puritan political reformations brought true liberty and peace.  (Streams of Civilization, by Garry J. Moes, published by Christian Liberty Press, page 99).

Based on these definitions and analysis, I believe that it was a political reformation – not revolution – that made the American nation. Therefore, I prefer to call it “America’s War for Independence.”

Were the Founding Fathers radical in their thinking? For their era, yes. Did they intend to rule without governing laws? No. Did they acknowledge God and moral laws? Yes (“…which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…” Declaration of Independence, 1776). Thus, according to the definitions above, was it a revolution? No.  Was it a political reformation? Yes.

Now, I hope this post doesn’t sound like endless or empty arguing. Again, you can call it whatever you like. But I’m going call it The American War for Independence because I want to subtly remind people that America was founded on principles of faith, orderly government, and moral principles. I hope using a slightly different name will make people wonder, make them ask questions.

Now, if you need a break from the technical word choice and theories – please enjoy this video of War for Independence music played by Colonial Williamsburg’s Fife and Drum Corps…

See you next Friday – and VOTE for our topics!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. I need you to VOTE by leaving a comment. Each week of this month I’m going to do a short, snappy biography on an American leader from the War of Independence era. Do you want military leaders or statesmen? The choice is yours and will be by majority VOTE. (After-all, voting is one of the privileges of America’s War of Independence).